I want to dance for the masses, for the working people, who need my art and have never had the money to come and see me. And I want to dance for them for nothing, knowing that they have not been brought to be by clever publicity, but because they really want to have what I can give them.
(Isadora Duncan; I shall never hear of money)
For many that saw her dancing, she was a symbol of liberation. She was described as “an event not only in art but in the history of life” ( Max Eastman).
There is plenty that has been said and written about Isadora Duncan. She wrote much to help us to trace the development of her dance theory. Best known for her self-creation as a neo-hellenic Muse, she entered the XX century with a joyful skip announcing the new era for Dance. And a new era started with her, indeed.
She insisted in her most famous text/speech The Dancer of the Future, that revolution must start from the liberation of the (female) body. The rejection of strictly codified and non-expressive ballet laid a foundation for the new form of dance that was meant to be based on a “natural” expression of the body that would from then move in tune with its true self and find its lost beauty. Essentialism at its purest. However, Duncan in fact initiated a complete breakthrough in dance history (here, understood as Western dance history, though I will elaborate on problematics of that very concept in a separate text) by claiming that one must not only look for inspiration in Nature to develop movement, but that the body itself is a source of dance:
I was seeking and finally discovered the central spring of all movement
The Solar Plexus would become the origin of movement in Duncan’s technique and give birth to the New Body - the radiant body moved by wave-like energy, each movement giving birth to another, the body effortlessly surfing on a cosmic flow. This is a profound discovery as it shifts the entire meaning of the dancing body from merely a “letter” in text (for example - Baroque) to an almost omnipresent self-determined force. The call to express oneself came with the belief in the body’s capacity to feel oneself, but also to feel others, to mediate with it, to overcome its singularity in the act of dancing.
I am the magnetic centre to convey the emotional expression of an orchestra.
Isadora was convinced that the dancing body can make a leap into the Collective, the Universal and through that, it can transform its audience. The body became a primary location for her revolution (Dana Mills).
The art of Isadora’s dance begins with the body's ability to communicate and create meaningful connections, and most importantly, the ability to transcend its physical dimension and become a vessel for an energy that flows in tune with the entire Cosmos. This body is a myth, a somatic utopia based on an unavoidable and yet blissful, eternal return of all the things (Greek).
Isadora wrote in the Art of Dance:
To bring to life again the ancient ideal! I do not mean to say, copy it, imitate it; but to breathe its life, to recreate it in one's self, with personal inspiration: to start from its beauty and then go toward the future.
Is it a collective future that Duncan is talking about? Some claimed that in her performance she managed to bridge "tension between individualism and collectivism" so her acts of self-expression were already a mediation of a collective experience.
The personal traumas and the collective grief after World War I, as well as the official invitation from the Soviet State, brought Duncan to Russia after the October Revolution. In the wake of the New World Order she would have a chance to carry out her project on a big scale. Her alleged Bolshevism would obviously became a no-go back at home, but in the 1920’s, Duncan seemed to be anyways fed up with the American upper classes, who had once supported her work, and she enthusiastically went East, once again.
Like everything in Duncan’s life, her first travel to Russia at the beginning of the XX century was full of turmoil and heartstopping events. In 1905, she witnessed a seemingly endless procession of workers carrying the coffins of their fellows that had been massacred by the Tsarist Army in an event that went down in history as Bloody Sunday.
With boundless indignation, I watched poor grief-stricken workmen carrying their martyred dead… If I had never seen it, my life would be different. There, before this seemingly endless procession, this tragedy I vowed myself and my forces to the service of the people and the downtrodden.
(Isadora Duncan, My Life)
We must then not be surprised that Duncan celebrated the overthrow of Tsar in 1917:
On the night of the Russian Revolution I danced with a terrible fierce of joy. My heart was bursting within me at the release of all those who had suffered, been tortured, died in the cause of Humanity.
(Isadora Duncan, My Life)
Some years later, she would dance in celebration of the 4th anniversary of October Revolution and Lenin would watch.
There, on the newly proclaimed communist soil, Duncan found her “content”: her vision of free, communal education and her resentment toward the elites (once her audience) could now be channeled into a choreography based not any more on Greek stories but on social criticism. Due to her politically engaged art, Isadora was recognized by the Soviets as an important cultural messenger that could be employed to campaign for THEIR revolutionary ideas.
In 1923, after her performance in Bolshoi Theatre, Duncan received a telegram - the Soviet State was inviting her to Moscow, offering her her own school and thousands of children. It was not only the perspective of a “fresh start” but also a promise for a better post-revolutionary future for all that encouraged Isadora to move to Russia.
In the text, Great Step Forward from 1921, she wrote:
I am convinced that here in Russia is the greatest miracle that has happened to humanity in 2000 years. We are too close to it to understand it, and it is probably only those who will be alive in a hundred years who will understand that by the reign of communism, humanity has made a great step forward from which it can never go back.
One of her most powerful choreographies of that period - The Revolutionary - depicted the body moving back and forth as in a desperate loop, in a struggle that may seem to never end. Yet, the final rise of her clenched fist in an iconic victorious pose could be read as a proclamation of hope and empowerment.
It is truly amazing that in one, brief dance, a single human body can portray the terrible logic of directed anger as an antidote to curdling pain—an explosive finale to restrained endurance. (Nadia Chilkovsky Nahumck)
The revolutions of 1917, as well as the revolution of Duncan, are rather seen as failed, doomed to exist, examples of utopian projects that prematurely ended with the death of their leaders. Lost battles, unfulfilled promises, letdowns. The thousand children promised by the Soviet State to Isadora shrunk to a hundred, and the primary interest in her modern dance with its split with ballet associated with monarchy, was, soon after Lenin’s demise, replaced with the projects of creation of the new, communist-friendly National Ballet.
To interpret Duncan’s legacy reduced to her tunic and barefoot persona is to forget about the big project that she had dreamt, beyond the limited and non-time-resistant metaphors. Her vision of free dance was based on the idea of the individual potential of each body to express itself in movement and to emancipate itself through dance. She was not herself the Dancer of the Future, yet she announced her arrival and prepared space for the New Dance to unfold. However, the emphasis on the power of the individual should not be mistaken with notions of subjectivity of late modernity that we live in now.
Isadora repeatedly claimed that she had never danced a solo - her dancing body was there to mediate the complexity of the bigger, more collective experience. She dreamt about dance that would mobilize people and transform them. From today’s perspective almost a century after Isadora, we must of course see the limits of her philosophy of liberation and the flaws in her proposal.
If we seek the real source of the dance, if we go to nature we find that the dance of the future is dance of the past, the dance of eternity, and has been and will always be the same. The movement of waves, of winds, of the earth is ever in the same lasting harmony (...) we realize that the movement peculiar to its nature is eternal to its nature.
(Isadora Duncan, Dancer of the Future)
Public protest repeats itself endlessly and so do the dances.
Regardless of the great and diverse heritage of dance culture, globalization made us dance the same routines over and over again. Today, our liberated post-postmodern bodies enter the pretty well established dance scene to supposedly exercise their freedom of expression, yet what we can often observe when we look at each other sharing the global dancefloor, is that we’ve watched the same YouTube clips or we have gone through a certain dance education that’s made us dance in a hyper-individualized but also trend-conscious way. The cool unification of bodies realizes itself in the global optimization of dance vocabulary in which most of the meaning is necessarily reduced to the recognizable visual codes. The wide spread and mass celebration of neoliberal dances make us maybe, sometimes, insensitive to the true potential of the dancing body as it was imagined by Duncan. Those who conformed to visual regimes and the convenience of the modern seemingly apolitical (art)- life conformed their bodies too, and those bodies, though given the promise of mobility, are ultimately immobilized by the ever-present eye of the market.
Duncan envisioned the coming of dance that, in fact, was not to be new, but rather, eternal and ancient, dance that had been erased from the bodily memory by the excessive focus on appearances and royalty/validation of social status. She desired a more egalitarian dance, dance for all. However, to enter the stage of ‘legitimate’ art, she had to align her dancing with the upper classes. As much as her pursuit of the True Beauty and search for The Universal amongst Greek Gods was/is problematic (to say the least) , her coming down from Mount Olympus to dance for the working classes was marked by her radicalism, but it was an "aristocratic" radicalism. She believed in revolution without ideology and perhaps saw herself as unbiased and ideologically neutral, meaning righteous. She wanted to be a priestess of the new religion in which the expression of one raised arm would evoke a thousand arms and in which dance would be an act of connecting with others and with the Sublime. She is said to have redistributed the sensible, she wanted dance to enter the sphere of commons and her project to ultimately exceed her lifetime.
I believe that my School will create a new art or show the way toward it. Only the new generation will be able to express the new world and find new genius and new ideas. It is impossible for me to teach this. You must do it yourselves.
(Isadora Duncan, Notes on Scriabin)
Dance could be an infinite practice of making oneself and others better, of looking into the future with hope. But we perhaps should start utoping with an honest identification of where we stand and what can we do, and, at also, who is excluded from our visions of better futures.
Utopias are necessary. But not only are they insufficient: they can, in some iterations, be part of the ideology of the system, the bad totality that organises us, warms the skies, and condemns millions to peonage on garbage scree. The utopia of togetherness is a lie. (...) So we start with the non-totality of the ‘we’. From there not only can we see the task but we can return to our utopias, to better honor the best of them.
(China Mieville, The limits of Utopia)
Edited by Alice Heyward